Another swing and a miss for public unions

  • Updated: July 16, 2011 - 9:48 PM

They couldn't turn the tide, even with all that influence behind them.

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Several thousand members of AFSCME Council 5 packed into the Capital rotunda for a day on the hill. The event included speeches by union members and leaders and visits to legislators.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Minnesota's government shutdown -- the longest in U.S. history -- may soon be over. The breakthrough came on July 14, when Gov. Mark Dayton announced he was taking higher taxes -- his signature issue -- off the table. Much remains to be done before the deal is wrapped up. But now is the moment to reflect on what happened, and why.

For the left, especially government employee unions, the stakes in Minnesota's budget battle were momentous. Raising taxes is at the heart of the progressive agenda. More tax money is essential if government is to continue its rapid expansion, which they ardently desire.

But in recent months, the left has repeatedly struck out on that front. In New York and California, among the nation's most liberal states, Democratic governors have slashed services and spending to balance their budgets, without raising taxes. The same debate is underway at the federal level, in the pitched battle over the debt ceiling.

Here in Minnesota, the left's challenge was to muscle Dayton's bloated budget and new taxes through a GOP-controlled Legislature. They had to succeed to prove the national tide has not turned inexorably against ever-expanding government.

Progressive forces hauled out their biggest guns to win the battle here. An organization called Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM) led the charge for a phalanx of hyperactivist groups. ABM's name may conjure up images of your local, public-spirited Kiwanis Club. In fact, it's a state affiliate of the 16-member ProgressNow network, which describes itself as a 24/7 communications hub for progressive groups and issues.

ABM is lavishly funded by Big Labor --AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU and Education Minnesota -- and by Dayton family members and other über-wealthy liberals. In the 2010 election, the organization poured $5 million into attack ads targeting Dayton's opponent, Tom Emmer, and helped launch a boycott of Target Corp. to scare off corporations nationwide from supporting conservative candidates.

When the budget impasse arose in late May, ABM and its union allies instantly mobilized. Within hours of the regular legislative session's end, ABM announced an ad buy of up to $1 million to promote Dayton's budget policies across the state.

ABM and the unions used hardball, campaign-style tactics -- unprecedented in a nonelection year -- in an attempt to alarm the people of Minnesota and to pressure GOP legislators. The coordinated strategy included robocalls from union phone banks out of Washington, D.C.; "community meetings" to ambush and intimidate GOP legislators, and literature drops and door-knocking sweeps in districts represented by Republicans perceived as vulnerable.

In some districts, canvassers went door to door with cell phones, urging residents to call their legislators to demand higher taxes. Calls were often routed to legislators' home phones, where a spouse or child might answer.

Funny thing, though. Many GOP legislators say they were surprised at the number of callers who encouraged them to stand firm and to reject new taxes. Rep. Kurt Daudt of Isanti County posted one such call on his Facebook page, in which the speaker essentially said, "The union told me to call, but keep doing what you're doing."

Dayton may have gotten the same message on his last-minute cross-state tour last week -- intended to drum up support for his budget position. That seems likely, because by Thursday he caved, and agreed to accept Republican leaders' pre-shutdown offer of June 30, which decisively rejected new taxes.

Why didn't progressive forces' all-out attack win the day in Minnesota's budget battle? After all, conservative groups were able to mount only a feeble public-relations response, consisting of a few billboards and cable TV ads.

One reason, ironically, was that Dayton's most fervent supporters -- government employees -- were the folks who suffered most from the shutdown. Other Minnesotans might have been annoyed at having to drive by a closed rest stop, but they didn't lose their jobs, as many of Dayton's core supporters did. Rank-and-file union workers may have pressured Dayton to pull his new taxes demand, despite their leaders' public stance.

But there was a more important factor at work. Ordinary Minnesotans realize that government spending can't climb forever. We get fed up when government unions knock on our doors and spend big bucks saturating the airwaves with "give us more" messages.

In these times, average folks know that they must live within their means, and that this requires making tough choices on spending. We can't just vote ourselves more income, as elected officials can do for government workers.

Public employees have come to expect state budgets to grow endlessly. The outcome of our state's budget battle suggests they may be learning what other Minnesotans already know -- the party can't go on forever.

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at kakersten@gmail.com.

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